Original HS slashfic, R, 26,000 words
Summary: Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.
As they turned on to the street, Nick asked uncertainly, "Which way are you going?" Robbie glanced up at him with bruised eyes.
"I'm hurt you have to ask," said Robbie. "I'm going with you. To defend you from all the dastardly terrors of the night."
"Like muggers?" They were in fairly short supply in Blackrock.
"I was thinking dragons," admitted Robbie, "but whatever you're having yourself."
a/n: I have so many people to thank for this that I will have to list them in order of rank.
softlyforgotten, Grand High Duchess Mikaella, Queen of All the Universe, Especially the Awesome Bits and the Mars Bars
oddishly, Her Extremely Royal Celestialness Helen, Empress of Non-Boring Cookies, Ice-Skating, Pink Slippers and France
blindmouse, Shining Jubliessence Jarrah, Paragon of Dreaming Spires and Waterwheels
ravurian, Owner of the Amazing Names and Excellent Pants
Vous toutes know pourqoui. &youall;
Dedicated to murklins. ♥
other a/n: For once, this is set in an actual location: Cork. RELISH.
No one will believe me, but the concept behind this was born long before bandom and the story was started without it (although not finished). What can I say, I may have a thing for tiny rockstars.
She Wanted Storms
You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.
That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
When, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.
~ ANNA AKHMATOVA
Initially, the week leading up to Nick Hedges' eighteenth birthday didn't differ significantly from the other fifty-one of his seventeenth year. As the day itself approached, he often felt little feathers of anticipation swirl in his stomach. But to be fair, he didn't think about it a lot. Just once or twice an hour.
On Friday evening, Nick tore through his homework. The air outside was clear and fresh, hardly any wind - perfect for some impromptu ball. There was rain on the horizon, however. There was always rain on the horizon, except for when it was actually raining. Nick rounded off an essay with a rather garbled conclusion and grabbed one of his basketballs.
"Gonna shoot some hoops, Ma," he yelled.
A faint cry echoed from the studio. Mrs Hedges was a painter, and quite a good one, if your taste in art ran to enormously naked women with three eyes and blue skin. Nick didn't pretend to understand it, but the paintings sold for thousands of euro. According to the art magazines laid around prominently and geometrically on every table, this was because Sylvia Hedges was an 'avant-garde interpreter of the stuggles of modern life, a woman who embodies the zeitgeist.' According to Nick's friend Padraig, it was because there was a fool born every minute.
He chanced his arm and the fate of his ball to bounce it lightly on the hall floor. Mrs Hedges had once burst a ball with a paintbrush because the rattle of the backboard made her lose her connection to the creative vista. Nick was pretty sure she was only setting up gallery viewings this evening, fortunately. His mother under the influence of the muse put Medusa to shame. Nick tended to practise on the school courts those days.
Thinking about it made him bounce the ball a little too strongly; one of the Ming vases under the SOMETHING mirror rattled. Nick shoved the ball under his arm and stopped the vase's trembling with a finger. At that moment, the doorbell rang.
The mirror caught Nick's bowling-ball-faced moment of surprise. Nick's friends usually hopped the fence and used the back door. Mrs Hedges' arty brigade, for all their non-conservative leanings, never showed up without phoning first. Mr Hedges - well, Mr Hedges had no friends, as far as Nick knew. Once a year, their accountant would visit his father for an hour-long discussion about taxes, but that was always in October. Not a stock-market crash nor the fall of Western civilisation would prompt the eight-hundred year old Mr Lewey to visit out of turn.
"Coming," Nick called. Flipping the locks was a little tricky with the ball under his arm, but Nick had skills. A mere three minutes later, he threw the door wide open and beamed at the visitor with all the geniality of unexpected success.
"Hi," said Nick, his smile slipping a little as the oldish man on the stoop stared and maintained a choking silence. "Are you here to see anyone in particular?"
The man's gaze was appraising, in a way that made Nick uncomfortable. But it was somehow different from how the sleazy individuals who hung around the park ('pimps,' said Padraig knowledgably) or outside the blue light discos stared at him; it was almost as if the man recognised him.
"Yeah." The rather dreamy expression snapped out of the man's face. He dug in the pocket of his insanely tight jeans and squinted at a grubby bit of notepaper. "Dammit, forgot my glasses again. Mr Hedding? No. Mr Hedge. Mr Hedge, seriously." He laughed, a grating little gasp.
"Mr Hedges is my dad," said Nick cautiously. "He's not home yet, though. Are you sure it isn't Mrs Hedges you're looking for?" In his jeans and silk shirt, belt dripping with metalware, and unnecessary sunglasses, the man was definitely a candidate for one of Mrs Hedges' proteges. The idea of Mr Hedges having an appointment with a man who had stars tattooed on his knuckles was laughable.
"Oh, no," said the man, with heavy force. "I don't think so. Not Mrs Hedges."
"Please come in, then." Nick swallowed a sigh. He'd been brought up in the shackles of politeness and so he'd have to entertain his father's guest until Mr Hedges returned from the office. No doubt by then it would be dark, raining, or both.
"I've caught you at a bad time."
"No, no," said Nick hastily. He shifted the ball on his hip, and the man tilted his head.
"I think," he started to say, but never finished. Instead, he pulled off his sunglasses by one arm, a smooth move that bore the hallmarks of habit, and rubbed circles around his eyes. They were a deep, unseemly blue; grooves radiated out from the reddened rims, reaching all the way to his temples. "I'll bail for a little while. When'll your - um, dad. What time does he, you know, finish whatever?"
"Work?" suggested Nick. The man was sounding more and more like a posterboy for Talk to Frank. "About six, unless he has to work late. He'll be home by eight, with traffic. If I took your name and contact details, he could get back to you -?"
"I'll be back at eight," said the man. "Tell him - tell him - you know what? Don't. I will."
"Uh," said Nick. "Okay."
The man half-saluted him, silver rings glinting in the disinterested sunshine. Nick watched as he retreated down the driveway. He walked toe-to-heel, like an Egyptian fresco. Perhaps that accounted for the hip-swaying.
Nick was surprised by the car that instantaneously pulled up, almost as if the man had summoned it by telepathy. It was a sleek black monster, all endless tinted windows, and it was a Merc. Padraig would be impressed. Nick was rather glad Padraig wasn't there to witness it, because he had a depressively retentive memory for car specs, which he combined with a painful need for dissemination to any captive audience.
Nick slipped down to the gate and watched until the car whirred off into the distance. Only then did he go to the mini-court at the side of the house and start practising three-pointers.
Nick stopped an hour later with salt crusting his eyelashes and his hair a wet mess. Marita, the housekeeper, came to the back gate and waved at him with wooden spoon.
"Dinner, Nicholas!" she called. It was a point of honour for her to call her employers by their full titles, no matter how much Mrs Hedges complained that hers made her feel positively Palaeolithic. Nick had only recently broken Marita of the 'Master Nicholas’ habit, so he let the rest slide. Marita hailed from Cobh, but she'd watched too much television. Nick caught the ball on the rebound and carried it inside.
"Mrs Hedges has gone out with a client," said Marita, consulting a fat Filofax she kept in the breadbin. Nick already knew his mother was gone - had vaguely registered her car pulling out of the garage - but it wouldn't do to deprive Marita of her fun.
"Okay. So what's for eats?" asked Nick and, belatedly, "Where's Dad?"
"Lasagne and tomato salad," said Marita. "And Mr Hedges is with a - visitor."
Marita shrugged. They shared a mutual eyebrow raise of scepticism before Nick slid off his stool. "I'll just put this upstairs," he said, holding up the ball.
"Ask Mr Hedges if he wants his dinner now or later while you're at it," said Marita, who could be relied upon to be complicit.
Nick bounced the ball as he approached his father's study to give him fair warning. After his knock, there was a shuffle of voices before the handle snicked. Mr Hedges' harassed face appeared.
"What?" he snapped.
Nick recoiled. His father was usually grey of personality and folded in a bit, as if from great weariness, but he was rarely impatient. "Marita wants to know if you're having dinner now?"
"Get her to put it in the warmer," said Mr Hedges. He closed the door smartly, but not before Nick got a glimpse of tattooed, silver-ringed hands, tapping a restless beat on the arm of a chair.
On impulse, Nick chucked the basketball down the hall. It gave some satisfying thuds before rolling to a stop. "Oops," said Nick loudly, and thundered after it. He gave himself a few seconds for safety, then crept back to the door.
Nick was no expert on eavesdropping, but the two men in the study were making no effort to be circumspect. In fact, if Nick hadn't known such a thing to be categorically impossible, he would have thought his father was shouting.
"- what you're doing here!"
There was a pause. Nick had to strain to hear the next words.
"I thought it was you." The man laughed. It wobbled a bit. "When he opened the door, Danny, I thought it was you."
"I see time hasn't made you any smarter, then," said Mr Hedges.
"Don't. This isn't - you left, you can't be angry."
"I'll be angry if I want to. This is my house, this is my life."
"Yeah. Yeah, it is." Another pause. Eavesdropping was tedious business, Nick decided, even if it did involve him. His knees were cramping from crouching.
"Did he ever learn an instrument?" was the man's next question. It seemed random, to say the least. Mr Hedges didn't answer for a while.
No; Nick hadn't ever learned music, nor had any desire to - except. He'd been six, or seven, not old enough to be too old for the toy keyboard bestowed upon him by a benevolent aunt. It played music - Father John, Twinkle Twinkle - if you pressed a button. Nick had been keen to learn the real thing. He'd pestered his parents for piano lessons until they got him a puppy, which had proved quite the diversionary tactic. Nick hadn't thought of piano lessons again until now, a decade later.
Marita's bellow about burning pasta startled Nick into guilt. He left the ball in favour of dinner and telling Marita to put Mr Hedges' aside, which provoked her rant about the ratio of exposure time to limpness of lettuce leaves.
Nick wasn't bothered about missing the end of his father's conversation with the mystery stoner. It hadn't sounded that interesting anyway.
The friendly against Douglas was scheduled for eleven am on Saturday. Nick was up, washed and fed by nine. He took his ball out into the chill morning for some extra warm-up. It was a quarter to ten by the time he went back inside, panting icicles into the air, to find the house as dead as he'd left it.
Marita had weekends free and Mrs Hedges was undoubtedly sleeping off the excesses of her 'business meeting'. Mr Hedges was usually roped into driving Nick to Saturday matches. Nick was conscientious about checking whether or not his father was working on the days in question, and he would have sworn sideways and backwards that today wasn't one of them. Yet there was no smell of percolating coffee and old-fashioned aftershave, no quiet hum of Mr Hedges singing to himself in the kitchen.
A small fist of panic lightly punched Nick's insides. If he'd needed to get the bus, he should have left half an hour ago. Saturday bus drivers were even more tempestuous and flighty than weekday ones. He took the stairs to the second floor three at a go.
Mr and Mrs Hedges had kept different bedrooms for as long as Nick could remember. He'd been surprised and a little disapproving that Padraig's and Jack's parents shared a bed the first times he slept over. It made sense on more than one level (the one Nick never, ever thought about in relation to his parents). Mrs Hedges' habits were nocturnal and she was rarely without a showing or soiree to attend until the small hours of the morning, while Mr Hedges had to rise at five in order to get to work on time. Other, smaller issues divided them, like Mrs Hedges being psychotically neat, versus Mr Hedges treating the floor as a combined wardrobe and laundry basket.
Nick had his own bedroom, bathroom and playroom, which was nowadays called his study. He didn't have much occasion to visit his parents' part of the house. In fact, he had to think for a minute to remember which door was his father's.
"Dad?" he called, drumming his knuckles against the most likely candidate. "Dad? You in there?"
A muffled groan assured Nick of life, if not enthusiasm. He waited a minute before continuing, "I have a match in Douglas at eleven ... you said you'd drive me?"
"What? Shit, I -"
Before Nick got over the shock of Mr Hedges - anti-profanity crusader extraordinaire - swearing, there was a loud thump. It sounded very much like Mr Hedges had fallen out of bed.
Nick pushed open the door. "Are you okay? Dad?"
Mr Hedges unwound his limbs from a strangling ribbon of sheet. His legs were skinny and shockingly white: Nick didn't think he'd ever seen them before. His father rotated pinstripe suits and pinstripe pyjamas in an endless and unvarying parade. Except for the times he apparently wore only boxers. Like last night.
"What time is it?" Mr Hedges blearily stared at the alarm clock. It was blinking 00:00.
Nick silently fetched Mr Hedges' glasses from the nightstand and handed them over. His father smelled a bit ... pickled. Nick was well aware of the antique whiskey his father kept in locked cabinets, mainly due to testing the insuperable barrier said locks turned out to be. Up till today, Nick would have said the bottles were only for show. "It's past nine," he told him.
"My head," Mr Hedges informed Nick, "is breaking."
"Did you hit it?" Nick crouched down and tentatively patted Mr Hedges' bald spot. "There's no blood, anyway."
Mr Hedges groaned again. "Get me ... get me the car keys. And about a litre of black coffee."
By the time Mr Hedges shuffled out to the car, in one of his wife's oversized jumpers and bedsocks, it was half past ten. Nick was reconciled to being late and on the point of texting his coach to inform her of the fact when Mr Hedges put his foot on the accelerator - and didn't take it off again for the length of the journey.
Mr Hedges was usually such a sedate driver that in his wake old ladies beeped their horns and flashed him the Vs. Nick might have counted the mounting incongruities and calculated a midlife crisis - if he hadn't been so focused on staring over his shoulder, looking for scorch-marks.
"Are you coming in to watch?" asked Nick, nervously, when they arrived. It was five minutes past eleven.
Mr Hedges just dropped his head on to the steering wheel, making the horn blare. Nick grabbed his kitbag and jumped out.
Laura was waiting for him at the gym door. "Where were you? The coach was expecting you ages ago, Mr Captain Man. I texted you about five times." She peered into the carpark, where Mr Hedges' car still sang the 'I'm being burgled' song. "Is that your dad?"
"No," said Nick. He slammed a hurried kiss against her cheek. "Tell you later."
"Good luck!" Laura called after him. For once, Nick didn't cheekily say, "I won't need it!" He thought, for once, he might.
Nick scratched the back of his neck with his left hand. The angle was awkward, but he was holding Laura's hand with his right one. The first month they were going out, Nick lost count of the times he'd tried to do something with his hand while Laura's was in it. He was better at avoiding it now, and rather proud of the fact that they still held hands a lot. And yet - he hadn't done more than splash his face after the match. The facilities left something to be desired: working plumbing, for starters. While forgoing to wash the practically solid sweat off his hair, he’d forgotten that he and Padraig and Jack and Laura had plans to scam some alcohol at a 'joint Padraig knew.'
"Are you sure about this place?" asked Nick. He didn't want to waste time being laughed at in off-licences when he could be showering. He still hadn't picked out what he was wearing that night, either. Not that you could tell Padraig and Jack something like that: they wore the same, ubiquitous jeans and polo shirts with popped collars everywhere. As it was Nick's unofficial birthday night out, Padraig might choose searing orange instead of white with blue stripes; but as far as sartorial intrepidness went, that was it.
"It's a sure thing," said Padraig. He squinted at his older brother's ID card. "Do I look much like Finbarr, do you think? In this photo, I mean. Not in general."
"Not in general, for sure," said Laura. She exchanged an amused glance with Nick. Finbarr went in for what Padraig dismissively called a 'goth look.' It involved letting his hair grow long, wearing a lot of dusty black and, in previous years, hanging out by the courthouse with a skateboard he couldn't use.
Fortunately the ID picture had been taken before Finbarr started college, where - free from parental constraints and Padraig's scorn - he got as many piercings as would fit on his face, dyed his fringe green and started using eyeliner. Underneath it all, he and Padraig were similar in looks. Both had distinctively long, straight noses. That would be the pivotal factor, Nick reckoned.
"If anything'll convince them, that will," he said. "But couldn't he have, you know, done this for us?"
"Where's the fun in that?" said Jack.
"Exactly." Padraig looped an arm around Nick's neck and jostled him, jerking Laura along in the process. She just laughed. "You're becoming a man, Nick! You need to - I don't know. Prove it."
"I've proved it plenty," said Nick indignantly. Jack wolf-whistled and Laura's hand became slightly vice-like. "I mean - I can drive."
"Kangarooing your dad's car down the driveway does not count," said Padraig.
"Not if you actually want to go somewhere," added Jack. Nick remembered they'd both been pretty impressed at the time.
"Besides," said Padraig, "Fin's having band practice all today. Which is all to the good. The last time I listened to them, they sounded like a bunch of tomcats on heat."
"They got a new guitarist, didn't they?" said Jack.
"What, again?" groaned Laura. "How many does that make?"
"Only three this month," said Padraig. "Good going, for them."
"It's that new kid, from - Roscommon?" said Jack.
"Don't be ridiculous," said Patrick. "No one actually lives in Roscommon. I'm pretty sure it doesn't actually exist."
"He is, though," persisted Jack. "He's in our music class, remember?"
"Remember something from class? Who do you think I am, Laura?"
"Your knuckles must get scratched from dragging them along the ground so much," said Laura. Padraig pretended to grab his chest in agony.
"Robbie," said Jack, the conversation flowing and parting around him, as it habitually did. "Mrs Dubarry said Robert on the roll-call and he said, I prefer to be called Robbie, and she said, I'd prefer if you took that thing out of your lip, and he said, I'd prefer not to, and she said, Would you prefer detention then?"
"Shit, that's a lot of preference," said Padraig.
"That's how it went, though. And he took out his lip ring because he had band practice that afternoon." Jack finished on a triumphant up-note. "Where were you?"
"Asleep, I'd say." Padraig yawned, as if to demonstrate the activity. "Mrs Dubarry should tape her voice as a cure for insomnia, she'd make a fortune."
"Does he have really spiked-up hair?" said Nick, slowly. An image was forming in his mind - an unfamiliar face with dark eyes under a shock of dark hair. Laughing at him. "Robbie?"
"Careful!" yelped Laura, as Nick tripped over a broken paving stone and nearly upset them both.
"Yeah," said Jack. "He's like, Finbarr's clone."
"Finbarr, at least, never wore eyeliner to school," said Padraig. "Didn't some teacher ask your man to wash it off and he said why should he if the girls don't?"
"Yes! That was Mrs Dubarry!"
"You don't have to sound so happy about it," grunted Padraig. "Why do they do that? It's so gay."
"Maybe he is gay," Laura pointed out.
"Yeah, well, Finbarr's not."
"But it's a thing, isn't it," said Laura. "A look."
"Still weird," said Padraig.
"You're so narrow-minded, Paudie," said Laura disapprovingly.
"Would you be happy if your boyfriend wore eyeliner?"
Laura hesitated, and Padraig said 'Aha!'
"Shut up," she said. "No, I wouldn't - especially if it was my Mac one. But Nick doesn't. It's not an issue for me, but I don't mind other people doing it."
"Put on a veil, you can be the next Mother Theresa," said Padraig.
"Oh, that's it." Laura dropped Nick's hand in favour of beating Padraig about the head with her D&G handbag.
Nick shook out his fingers, which were slightly cramped and clammy. Thinking about musicians and Finbarr made him remember the time a year ago, when he'd been desperate to learn guitar. Well, not in general, he recalled ruefully. It was learning from Finbarr in particular that was the attraction. It had all come out in one spectacular shouting match with his father - who hadn't shouted, himself, merely listened and kept saying, "Why?" until Nick thought he'd burst of frustration.
Mr Hedges had been great about it, though. It was one of the few unsmudged memories Nick had of his father: Mr Hedges sitting on the edge of Nick's bed and patting his heaving shoulder while calmly explaining that everyone got crushes on other boys at some point. It was okay; it was normal. And he still wasn't shelling out a grand for an electric guitar that would never be used, just to satisfy Nick's hormonal urges.
And it was okay. Nick started taking basketball more seriously and tried out for the school team. At the first post-victory celebration, he'd got off with Laura. Finbarr went off to college around the same time, so Nick didn't have to embarrass himself with reminders every time he went to Padraig's house.
It had been the eyeliner that did it. Unbenownst to anyone else, Finbarr experimented with makeup long before he started wearing it in public. Nick was around fourteen when he first walked in on Finbarr smudging kohl across his eyelids. Once, Nick had even - but that was irrelevant, as irrelevant as his transient interest in learning the guitar. He didn't even take music at school. His mother had talked him out of it in first year. He did art instead and was stupendously bad at it.
"Hey." Laura bumped shoulders with him. "You're a million miles away. You okay?"
"Yeah," said Nick. "Yeah, just thinking about the match."
He took her hand again.
The smell of burned saucepans alerted Nick to his mother's presence in the kitchen. She was sitting in front of a plate of baked beans and toast with a morose expression.
"There's leftover lasagne in the freezer," said Nick, taking pity on her.
"You look fancy," said Mrs Hedges. She narrowed her eyes at him over the microwave. "Off out, are you?"
"Yes, Mam." Nick rolled his eyes. "Finbarr's band's gig, remember? Padraig bought tickets for my birthday."
"I thought those sorts of things were over 18s."
"They are," said Nick, "technically." He didn't feel the need to inform his mother of the fake ID tucked in his back pocket. To do so would implicate her in a petty crime. Also, she'd confiscate it.
"Hmm," said Mrs Hedges. Nick's stomach plummeted.
"You did agree," he said. "You did." It had taken three weeks of alternate sulking and disgusting bouts of niceness to get her permission. For an artist, she was notoriously strict.
An upstairs door banged. Mrs Hedges flinched, her eyes rolling quickly upwards. "Yes, yes," she said. "Hadn't you better be off, then? Don't want to be late."
"I was going to -" began Nick. Mrs Hedges grabbed her purse and almost threw a fifty euro note at him. "Thanks," said Nick, bewildered, "but -"
"Go on, before I change my mind." Mrs Hedges laughed, a teeth-gritting tinkle of sound. She practically pushed him out the back door. Nick heard the lock go behind him.
He shrugged and shoved the money in his jacket. He was grateful that he'd brought it down with him. Clearly, Mrs Hedges was on one of her creative benders.
"Where's Nick?" His father's shadow moved behind the frosted glass. Nick felt an irrational urge to hide.
"Oh, out -" said Mrs Hedges. Nick's feet skimmed the gate as he jumped it, glee filling his soul.
His first gig. It was going to be awesome.
The gig was not awesome. The supporting band's drummer harboured a violent desire to beat his instrument into a pulp. Their two guitarists alternately duelled and whirled like dervishes, doing everything in their power to avoid actually playing. As for the lyrics - they reminded Nick of the time he'd tried to read Ulysses, and given up after three pages with a severe headache.
"They suck!" he howled at Padraig. Bright and feverish after five pints, Padraig grinned and nodded.
"They do!" he agreed, and went back to moshing. Despite the lack of a discernable beat to the music, he wasn't alone. Nick supposed enough alcohol conferred musicality to anything.
As he was only two Bulmers under par, he decided to go to the bar. Jack and Padraig began enthusiastically butting heads behind him. Nick only hoped they didn't break anything vital.
Laura was across the floor, looking bored with a group of girls she knew from school. Her favourite music was by Girls Aloud and Leona Lewis; she'd only come to the gig on sufferance, because it was Nick's birthday.
He interrupted an intense conversation about one of their teachers - 'No, Pauline swears she hasn't shaved her legs since the divorce - that was in first year -' - to ask Laura if she wanted a drink.
"I'm good," said Laura. She held up a Barcardi Breezer as proof. "Hey, you know Sorcha, right? And Annette?"
Nick didn't know them from a bar of soap, but he also didn't want to get stuck in a dissection of his relationship with them. A lot of girls - especially predatory blonde ones with fake nails - seemed to think he was wasted on Laura, who had short brown hair, a snub nose and was on the dumpy side of curvy. They apparently didn't understand the concept of liking someone, beyond liking what they saw.
So he simply nodded and said, "Yeah - listen, I just have to go to the jacks. I'll see you in a bit, right?"
Laura smiled at him and leaned over for a kiss. Nick avoided the proffered cheek and kissed her full on the mouth. Give those bitches something to really stare at.
After saying he was going to the bathroom, he couldn't very well skate off to the bar. Once in the men’s room, he discovered just how quickly beer passed through the system, and how fortunate was the lack of queues.
When he came out, there was only one boy there, staring in the mirror and pushing his hair around with an irritated expression. Nick nodded at him and washed his hands. His own hair was falling in his eyes: a cardinal sign that it needed a cut. It was what Nick considered to be an regrettable shade of dark gold, which looked grey in some lights and ginger in others. On the other hand, he was spared Padraig's frizz and Jack's grease, so on the whole he was on to a winner.
The boy beside him evidently thought so too, for he said, "Nice mullet."
There was a tinge of laughter in his voice, but Nick had absolutely no intention of getting into a fight with strange kids. He merely said, "Thanks."
He moved past the boy to get to the hand driers. The bathroom was pokey, but the boy made no effort to facilitate him. In fact, Nick could have sworn he actually stepped backwards a little. Nick didn't like the proximity - the way the edges of their hips brushed - or maybe he liked it too much. He thought he'd conquered this months ago. It made him angry, and when he caught the boy staring at him, all his good resolutions flew out the window.
"What?" he snapped.
"Nothing," said the boy. He rubbed his mouth, not quickly enough to hide the smile.
Nick bit off a growl and abandoned the arthritic hand drier, electing instead to wipe his hands off on his jeans. Padraig had whooped when he saw them and whispered sotto voce to Laura, "Watch out, I think he's cut off his meat and veg to get into those." Nick didn't care if Padraig's eyes flashed a little angrily when he said it. Padraig was built like a prop forward and Nick wasn't; he might as well make the most of it.
When he made to push past the boy again, the boy stuck out an arm. It was twined with bits of leather and string masquerading as bracelets, bulging here and there with beads. Nick was a little surprised to see cords of muscle standing out under his skin.
"Don't go just yet," said the boy. He was grinning. "We're having such a fun time."
Nick made a face. Despite what his higher brain suggested, it was a not a 'this is the last day of your life' face - it was just an 'are you for real?' face. "Yeah, it's a happening joint," he said, "the men’s room."
"I've always said so, and no one agreed," said the boy. "Clearly, you're my soulmate."
Nick's heart skipped a beat. Which was odd, because the boy had stopped smiling and pursed his lips instead, making an expression sacred to lemon-haters everywhere.
"I guess," said Nick, lamely.
"That means you have to tell me your name," said the boy. "I can't write moving love songs about you if I don't know your name."
"Nick," said Nick. "But it's okay, really. I'm a cheap date." The words spilled out before he'd even fully thought them, reminding him of the times he'd say things in front of Finbarr that made him ruffle Nick's hair and call him a 'cute kid.'
Something unfurled across the boy's face, lifting the corners of his eyes and mouth. He opened his mouth again, and the door opened too.
"There you are!" snapped Finbarr. Nick sucked in a startled breath, then realised he wasn't the one being addressed. "Onstage in five minutes, Rob, seriously."
"I was just washing my hands," said Robbie. Nick should have recognised him - the hair was wilder and the eyeliner more pronounced, but the way he'd laughed at Nick was exactly the same. "I know you're such a stickler for hygiene around the instruments."
"Dick," said Finbarr, and disappeared. Five seconds later he was back, hanging off the doorknob. "I mean it, dude! Now!"
"Your serenade will have to wait," Robbie said to Nick. Feeling Finbarr's curious eyes on him, Nick blushed. He knew he was, and deeply, because he could see his reflection. "Sorry."
"Stop tormenting the kid," barked Finbarr. Robbie stuck his tongue out - just the tip, at the corner of his mouth, where Finbarr couldn't see - and rolled his eyes. Nick smiled, thought better of it, frowned and blushed some more.
As Finbarr marshalled Robbie out of the bathroom, Nick heard him say, "That's my kid brother's friend. Do you want to go there?"
"Do you want me to answer that?" asked Robbie, before the door swung shut.
Nick gripped the sink very hard with both hands. When he finally met his own eyes, the blush had died down. Nick splashed water on his warm cheeks, gave a mental shake, and headed back into the fray.
When Finbarr's band came out looking like the half-wit lovechildren of Kiss and Meatloaf, Nick knew they'd have to be very, very good to not get booed offstage. Their warm-up band had frozen the crowd over; the ice wasn't cracking for four guys wearing more makeup than most girls present.
That was until they stepped up to the microphones and began to play.
It wasn't a perfect sound and even Nick - by no means a connoisseur of good rock - could tell. Finbarr's voice cracked on some of the high notes. The keyboardist fumbled half the bridges. And yet, the music was a struck match amongst the teenage kegs. They lit up, they danced, they caught the lyrics and sung along to choruses, clashing horribly with Finbarr.
Laura didn't like to dance, so Nick stayed at the edges with her, one arm around her shoulder. He saw Finbarr roll his eyes at his brother every time Padraig pretended to swarm the stage. Jack enthusiastically and completely without rhythm flailed to the music. A bevy of girls screamed Robbie's name every time he rolled his hips into his guitar, a move that brought him to his toes and should have brought him crashing to the floor. Nick detected the gleam of long practice in his triumphant grin.
Nick might have entertained thoughts about Robbie's eyes seeking him out in the crowd. It didn't happen, though. Robbie was totally focused on his playing, which seemed superlative to Nick's untrained eyes. Even the girls bouncing around in their bras didn't distract him, although they drew the attention of Finbarr and the keyboardist more than once, and accounted for at least three fumbled chords apiece.
Nick's feet were aching by the end of the set, in a way he privately thought they might not have if he'd been dancing with his mates. Laura was yawning into her wrist.
"What did you think?" he asked. The roar of the crowd hadn't abated because the music stopped, but it was possible to speak without screaming.
"Oh," said Laura doubtfully, "they were good, I suppose. Very - thrashy. And loud."
"Yeah," said Nick. Thrashy and loud were two suitable adjectives, but they didn't for a minute sum up what the band was truly like.
Padraig bounced up, Jack in tow. "House party at Finbarr's now!" he crowed. "You in?"
"Does Finbarr know we're coming?" asked Nick.
"Duh, he invited us." Padraig rolled his eyes. "His flat is close, we can walk it."
"What do you think?" Nick asked Laura. She made a moue.
"I'm supposed to be home by twelve," she said. "It's nearly that now. I suppose I could - although Dad might stop me going to your party on Friday if he catches me."
"No, it's okay," said Nick. "I'll take you home."
"Don't be silly." Laura kissed his cheek. "You kept me in drink all night, so I've plenty for a taxi."
"If you're sure -"
"I am!" said Laura. "It's your birthday, sort of. Go out and do silly boy stuff. Break a coffee table. Remember, you're getting my present Friday."
A few minutes, hugs and kisses later, Laura left. Padraig guffawed as soon as she was out of earshot.
"What present is that then, eh? Something special?"
"One track mind," sighed Nick. "Besides, we already did that."
"You don't even know what -"
"Yes, I do." Nick looked around for Jack. He was eyeing one of the Sorcha-Annette brigade, who was eyeing him back with a lot less hope and a lot more scorn. "C'mon, let's rescue Jack."
"There might be someone blind at this party he can score with," suggested Padraig with his habitual delicacy.
They bumped into Finbarr's band outside, packing a battered van with their equipment. Finbarr blew sweaty hair out of his face as he helped the drummer load his kit. "You guys want a lift?" he asked.
"Sure!" said Jack. "You the man, Finbarr."
"Thanks," said Finbarr dryly. "Paudie, grab that amp."
"What am I, your slave?" grumbled Padraig.
"No," said Finbarr, "you're the toad getting a free lift off me, now move."
Nick stopped looking around for Robbie and crouched to pick up the amp. It was heavier than he'd expected; he let out an involuntary oof of effort. A second later, another pair of hands eased the burden.
"Hey, soulmate," said Robbie.
"Hey," said Nick, colouring up in confusion. "It's okay, I've got it."
"Thanks, but I'll lay down and die before I let someone else carry my amps," said Robbie. "Besides, we should relish this short time we have together."
Nick's ears got hot, and the fingers pressed under Robbie's started to burn. Robbie laughed.
"Where's Kevin?" called Finbarr grumpily. "I'll break his keyboard in half in a minute."
"I'm here, I'm here," said Kevin, dashing around the side of the van. "I got her number!"
"Whose number?" asked the drummer, who might be called Declan.
"I dunno her name," said Kevin. "The one with the huge tits. And the, like, hair."
"I'm so glad he doesn't write our lyrics," breathed Robbie. Nick sniggered.
Declan, Kevin and Finbarr clambered into the cab of the van, leaving the other four to squeeze in as they would among the sharp edges of boxes and cases. Padraig took up most of the room, declaring that it was his brother's van when Jack complained. Jack folded himself up between the amps. Robbie and Nick crouched awkwardly on Kevin’s keyboard.
"I hope we don't break the keys," said Nick, as the van took off at a tempestuous rate.
"He couldn't sound much worse if you did," said Robbie. "We should paint naked women on the black notes, maybe then he'd actually pay attention to what he's playing."
There was an undercurrent of stinging venom to his words. When Nick slanted a glance at him, Robbie's eyes were narrowed. With the reddened rims and the eyeliner carelessly smeared, he looked vicious. As soon as he felt Nick's gaze, Robbie's face cleared.
"I won't ask you what you thought, because you'd have to lie," he said. He stretched out his legs as much as possible in the confined space, brushing one knee rather hard against Nick's.
"I thought you were good," said Nick, "but I'm not any judge of music, really. I don't listen to much."
"Really? I can't imagine that. One time my iPod broke and it was three days before I got it fixed," said Robbie. "I thought I'd eat someone alive," he added reflectively.
"Hmm," said Nick. He tried not to focus on Robbie's hand, curled in a loose fist and pressing into Nick's thigh every time the van hit a bump. The way Finbarr drove, the road might have been made of water balloons. Nick knew he wouldn't even notice if it were Padraig's hand, or Jack's, which made him annoyed and unsettled.
"You guys settled on a name yet?" yelled Padraig from the floor, where he'd managed to appropriate a grimy pillow. "Is it still the dumbass guinea pig one?"
"We're kind of stuck with it now," said Robbie stiffly. "They needed it for the posters and stuff."
"This is going to sound really bad, but what is the band's name?" asked Nick. "We've been calling it 'Finbarr's band' for so long I completely forgot it had any other."
Robbie curled his chin against his shoulder, smiling a little. "We're called Nostradamus Ate My Hamster."
"That's it!" roared Padraig. He was considerably drunker than Nick had realised. "Knew there were bloody rodents in it. Some stupid book of Fin's, right?"
"Right," said Robbie. Nick really wasn't dreaming the bite in his voice. He turned his shoulder, effectively blocking Padraig from view. "I'm really sleepy. D'you mind if I nap on you?"
Nick shrugged. Robbie brought up a hand to cup Nick's shoulder and rested his cheek against it. Within a few minutes he was asleep, or close enough. When Nick shifted a little to check, Robbie made a mewling noise and dug his fingers in, but didn't open his eyes.
"Weirdo," mouthed Padraig. Nick frowned and looked away.
Nick became separated from Robbie as soon as they got through the door of Finbarr's flat. A group of opportunists had been hanging around the courtyard, waiting - or maybe just hoping - to get in. Kevin’s girl was among them, much to his delight, so on Fin's behalf he issued a universal invite. As Fin's fridge was filled with beer and his presses with crisps, the party was soon heaving. Nick lost sight of Robbie when he disappeared into the thronged kitchen. Nick contented himself with the four planks of wood masquerading as an armchair that he'd secured, and the beer that Padraig procured for him. If there was only one bottle of beer left on earth Padraig would have found it, so thirty or forty people crammed into a kitchen designed for anorexic dwarfs posed no problem to him.
Nick recognised a few faces - friends of Fin's, who'd used to come to his house before he stopped living and, recently, visiting there. Nick even got one or two 'Hey, aren't you having your eighteenth soon?', by which Nick guessed that Padraig had been handing out impromptu invites, for god knew what favours in return.
He was halfway down the bottle and feeling pleasantly tingly when a pair of scuffed black Converse separated themselves from the herd. Nick's Converse, at least, were red, but at a party like this one Padraig's deck shoes were the ones that stood out as unique and edgy. There was an ironic life point in that, Nick was sure, but all thoughts of philosophy or indeed shoes faded out of his mind when he looked up and into Robbie's glossy smile.
"Hi, soulmate," said Robbie. Nick decided he'd probably forgotten Nick's actual name - and his own, too, judging by the whiskey on his breath. His balance also wasn't of the best: he collapsed on to the side of Nick's chair and slowly curved towards his lap. Nick just rolled his eyes. Mouth trembling as he fought not to smirk, he poked Robbie into a more vertical position.
"You wouldn't believe," announced Robbie, in the careful tones of the deeply intoxicated, "what I went through trying to find you."
"Oh, yeah?" said Nick. "This flat has three rooms. That must have been hard."
Robbie squinted at him, bringing his whiskey-wet mouth up to Nick's chin so he could stare him (almost) right in the eye. "You mock my valour," he said. "That's not very noble of you. Guinevere wouldn't act like that."
"Hey, how come I'm Guinevere?" objected Nick. "You be Guinevere."
"I don't have the legs for it," said Robbie seriously. Nick, torn between laughter and entering a more detailed debate on the merits of Robbie's legs - solid, swathed in black jeans that rode low even with a sparkly belt - chose laughter as the safe option. It didn't feel quite so safe when Robbie joined in and Nick could feel his chest heave against his shoulder.
"Gimme your hand," said Robbie. Nick was afraid to open his mouth for fear of what might come out, so he complied in silence. Robbie roughly pulled Nick's arm across his lap, not seeming to care that it was attached to the rest of him, and bent his head low over it. Nick could see a few tiny spots at the edge of his jaw, revealed as his long hair fell over his face, and felt momentarily terrified. It was too much, too invasive, too intimate, to see the skin behind someone's ear as they sat in your lap.
Fortunately - or unfortunately - Robbie chose that moment to distract him, by stabbing him.
"Ow!" said Nick, indignant. Robbie ignored him in favour of stabbing him again, harder this time. "What are you doing?"
"Shh," said Robbie. "You'll frighten the muse." He looked up into Nick's face and smiled, and Nick realised Robbie was writing on his arm.
"Where'd you get the pen?" he asked, referring to a fine specimen of the fountain breed, with a gold and black nib.
"I found it in a drawer when I was looking for forks," said Robbie.
"Yes, I can see how - ouch!" Robbie had pressed in deeply, but gave Nick a look of the most utmost and benign innocence.
"So what are you writing?" asked Nick and, more urgently, "Will it wash off?"
"Wait and see and no, never." Robbie curled his arm protectively around Nick's imprisoned hand. Nick shrugged and took a swig of beer. The bottle was nearly gone, so Nick didn't have much to choke on when Robbie said, meditatively, "Damn," and leaned down to lick Nick's arm.
"What the fuck?" spluttered Nick.
"I got a word wrong." Robbie pouted, more effectively than even he probably realised. His lower lip was shiny under the bare flurogen lamps. "Don't make such a fuss, I don't have hepatitis."
"It's not that," said Nick lamely. Reluctant to say what it was, he subsided, feeling the damp spot on his arm dry and itch as Robbie continued to scribble diligently.
"Will you be finished anytime soon?" he asked after a while. A lot of people had paired off at this point, for the usual reasons. None of them were having their arms written on or their legs half-crushed by a paper-deprived scribe. Not that Nick wanted option B normal either - so he talked.
"Would you rush genius?" demanded Robbie.
"If it had a curfew, yeah," said Nick.
A frown of disappointment twisted up Robbie's face. He swiped the sleeve of his unbuttoned check shirt over Nick's arm, taking a smearing of ink with it.
"Hey!" protested Nick. He snatched his arm away, but it was too late. All that was left of Robbie's work of staggering genius was a cloud of smudges and a few tightly scrawled words. Nick made out eyes filled up with blue, which didn't make a whole lot of sense considering Nick's eyes were brown. But of course, Robbie might not have been writing about him - just using his arm as a sketchpad.
Robbie bounced to his feet, leaving Nick groaning with the sudden-onset pins and needles. "Come on, then," he said.
"Where are we going?" Nick was already rising to his feet, limping a little for dramatic effect.
"Curfew," said Robbie, ducking his head in a way that brought a dark glittery shadow to his face. "I'll escort you home."